Standard rabbinic joke No. 17: A Jewish man stranded on a desert island is rescued. The rescuers see that he has two synagogues, yada yada yada. In today’s world, it seems that there is only a 1 in 5 chance that he’d belong to either of them.
The March 2 issue of the Chronicle contained an encouraging juxtaposition of ideas, precipitated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s 2017 Jewish Community Study. The editorial board suggested that the results of the study should lead us to “experiment with new programs and new modes of reaching and engaging what has become the single largest segment of our Jewish community,” i.e. the unaffiliated.
Meanwhile, my colleague and friend Rabbi Aaron Bisno opined in a letter on the next page that “bricks-and-mortar” institutions such as Rodef Shalom Congregation and Congregation Beth Shalom should “join one another as partners to discuss in a serious, rational and non-emotional way the future of our shared enterprise.”
Putting these two ideas together, we should be able to achieve what my Beth Shalom colleague Rabbi Jeremy Markiz likes to call a “both-and.” Collaboration, if embraced without fears regarding “turf” or ideological differences, should yield new ideas, fresh perspectives and engaging programs that serve an even wider swath of the community, rather than merely our respective congregations.
And the good news is that we already have a successful precedent for such collaboration: the Joint Jewish Education Program. Also known as J-JEP, it was originally conceived as a shared religious school between Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom, but now also attracts so-called “unaffiliated” families, as well as those from other congregations.
Like Rabbi Bisno, I am inclined to collaborate, and have long said that the future of Judaism depends upon collaboration. The synagogue model to which we are currently committed is clearly not as viable as it once was, and now is the time for change.
Consider an analogy to the music industry, which is struggling to adapt to the new realities of the digital age. People want and need music as much as ever, but the ways in which people get their music are changing. Likewise, it is not that Judaism needs to prove its relevance. We simply need to seek new ways to reach our audience. Once we figure that out, then the challenge of financial viability will follow.
It is for that reason that Beth Shalom created Derekh, headed by Rabbi Markiz, to reach within and without the Beth Shalom membership, creating targeted programming that engages the unaffiliated population along with dues-paying members by inviting them to enter one of five portals to Jewish life: Limmud (Jewish text-based learning), Hesed (acts of lovingkindness), Culture, Israel and Mindfulness. Some of the Derekh initiatives, such as the Yonina concert last November and the coming performance of Magevet, are proudly and deliberately collaborations with other institutions.
Meanwhile, the “metropolitan model” pioneered by Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation, through which those congregations are sharing a building (and, presumably, other resources), is a step in the right direction. And TOL*OLS’ new partnership with Chatham University to bring a range of programming to the community is an inspired innovation.
The primary goal of a synagogue is to be a focal point in the community for the practice of Jewish tradition and the fulfillment of Jewish values. But no synagogue should be an island. The new thinking and collaborations described above will ultimately transform our legacy institutions so that all the members of our community benefit from the framework of meaning that Jewish life offers. And we can do more.
Here are just a few ideas: Let’s create partnerships with OneTable, Honeymoon Israel and Repair the World. Let’s have more shared holiday celebrations, like a communal hakafah on Simchat Torah. Let’s create an adult-education consortium so that all programming is widely available and widely publicized. And here’s a really crazy idea: Let’s eliminate memberships to individual synagogues and create a unified system for all synagogues and Jewish institutions. This would eliminate the competition for members and the unnecessary reduplication of programs and structures, and potentially cast a wider net for all institutions. Those who join the system could take advantage of the offerings of any synagogue as they please.
Collaboration might mean that we have to make difficult decisions, that we may have to give up some of our autonomy as individual institutions. We may be challenged by ideological differences. But we might ask ourselves, what’s more important in today’s climate? Preserving “our” shul’s individual identity? Or reaching beyond the synagogue walls so that everybody in the region can appreciate the ways in which Judaism enhances our lives?
I want also to encourage our Orthodox friends, neighbors and colleagues to be a part of the conversation as well. We have the potential to create a truly unique and vibrant type of collaboration in Pittsburgh that will benefit us all. Why limit the discussion to Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations? Why not engage all of us as Jews? What unites us is far greater than what divides us.
The study reveals some encouraging notes, including levels of participation among younger Jews that are in every case higher than those of their parents and grandparents, even as they are less likely to be synagogue members. That bodes well for the future of Judaism in Western Pennsylvania. Now is not the time to protect turf, or to rally one movement over another. Now is the time for both collaboration and outside-the-box thinking. It’s a both-and, and there is no time to lose.
I am ready. Are you? PJC
Rabbi Seth Adelson is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom.